During the civil war in Rwanda in 1994, military units on both sides of the conflict included women among their ranks. The number of women in combat was 339. They had joined up to fight alongside their men folk.
Rwandan culture honours such women, for example the legendary Ndabaga , who became a warrior, after disguising herself as a boy.
In 2001, a group of Rwandan women, all ex-combatants, chose the name Ndabaga for their self-help association. The idea was to try to bring together female ex-combatants from both sides, to foster development, unity and reconciliation.
This fits with another Rwandan tradition, where women are seen as mediators or peacemakers. That’s why some new-born girls are given names like Nyampinga which means ‘solace’, or Gahuzamiryango, meaning ‘ family unification’.
“We want to provide solutions to our challenges as Rwandan women regardless of whether we are ex-far, RPF or otherwise. What matters is that many of us have many children to look after, some are single mothers and others are widows. We want to work together to overcome poverty and unemployment”, says the president of Ndabaga, Apophia Batamuliza.
One of the people who have benefited from the association is Jean d’ Arc Mukaruyange. She was a member of ex-Far, the army that fought against the forces of the current Government, back in 94.
After she was demobilized she was an unemployed widow with 13 children to look after: four of her own, and nine local orphans.
After 15 years as a soldier, Jean d’Arc didn’t know how else to make a living. That is, until she discovered she could make money by typing letters for people who need them.
“I was unemployed and discouraged at the time. But as we talked to each other about our problems, one of the members of the association called Odette gave me a type writer. I can meet my family needs. I don’t know how to put it but we can now afford to eat and drink”, tells Jeanne d’Arc.
She earns FRW 2000-3000 a day depending on the number of clients she gets. That’s about seven US dollars and enough to send her children to school plus other basic needs.
“Before mother joined the association we were in a very bad condition. In most cases we would go without food, but after she joined we went back to school. We even have enough food to eat it is not like before”, Jeanne’s eldest son, Ishmael says.
Eric Bizumutima is one of the nine local orphans’ Jean d’Arc’s looks after. For Eric, she is the parent he lost. “Before mother joined Ndabaga association the situation was very bad at home. We would go hungry for days”, says Eric.
But thanks to Ndabaga, it seems those days are gone. “If I was a man I would climb up the highest building and proclaim the benefits of Ndabaga. The association has done more than I ever expected”, adds Jeanne.
Joyce Ndera was a soldier in the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF), but resigned when she could no longer support her child. She says the father of her child was a high ranking military officer. “ After I gave birth this man tried to cover up what happened by renting a house for me because he did not want to be embarrassed, and went a head and married another woman”, reveals Joyce.
“I took my son to my mother but she could not do much because she was also helpless. By the time I came to Ndabaga I was almost giving up on life”, she says.
Thanks to Ndabaga, Joyce was given a job in Nyanza where the association had won a business tender to supply milk. She earns forty three thousand francs per month about eighty US dollars. “With this money I am able to pay my house rent, take my child to school and provide for my other family needs”, adds Joyce.
10 members of Ndabaga are now employed at the milk processing plant.
Ndabaga plans to combine any profits they make and share them out to provide loans to members, keen to set up new projects.
To help boost income, they are launching an internet cafe soon, in the Kimironko area in Kigali . Other activities have started in Nyanza and Butare.
Jean D’Arc says in this way, the women overcome poverty and also build reconciliation. “Some of us were not willing to let go of our ideologies, but since we came together things changed. We now have a common cause. Before we met our counterparts from RDF we used to think that we were the only female ex-combatants but we are now pleased with each other”, tells Jeanne.
The Chairman of the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, Jean Sayinzoga, believes all Rwandans could learn a lesson from the women of Ndabaga. “Women are the primary educators in the family setting. Mothers spend more hours with their children at home than fathers do. Therefore when unity and reconciliation is spearheaded by women it is more effective. Ndabaga is a strong pillar and symbol for unity among Rwandans”, says Sayinzoga.
Donna Gasana is in charge of peace and good governance at the United Nations Development fund for Women (UNIFEM). She believes Ndabaga has great potential for more good work. “This is the real peace work we normally talk about and it works very well with women. When we talk about peace work especially in Rwanda we are saying that all people from all sectors should work together for reconstruction and reconciliation and Ndabaga having been started by women who were predominately from RDF and at a later stage incorporated women from ex-far and militias is a big step towards reconciliation”, notes Donna.
The Director General of the Rwanda ‘s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, Innocent Nkurunziza says the fact that Ndabaga creates work and wealth is perhaps the key to its success. “Unity and Reconciliation is more than bringing differing people together. Reconciliation in the Rwanda context is when people work together for a common cause. It is when individual and collective rights are respected. It is when all people have equal opportunities without any form of discrimination” says Innocent.
When asked whether UNIFEM as part of the UN body would consider involving women in peace keeping missions, Donna eagerly responded: “That is our dream. We really think that women during conflict and after conflict have specific issues that have to be addressed, especially issues of gender based violence and we are convinced that women in conflict wish to have fellow women who know exactly what women face and what they want and what their needs are during peace keeping missions.”
Such comments open all sorts of new work possibilities for the women of Ndabaga. That’s because apart from promoting development among its members, the Association also advocates for the rights of serving female combatants who face numerous challenges compared to their male counterparts. “The nature of a woman in itself poses a challenge. The logistics during times of war do not cater for the specific needs of women. For example there are no provisions made for women during their monthly cycles. This a small, but very sensitive issue”, highlights Sayinzoga.
She argues that even when women are NOT involved in actual battle, they are still the prime targets. “The consequences of conflict hit women and children hardest. Men often run away in times of war leaving women and children exposed to danger. Worse still women are the number one victims of rape during such times”, she indicated .
So, might the women of Ndabaga one day help out on UN peacekeeping missions? Why not? These days, any job offer is too good to miss! Plus, it’s likely they have the expertise …
“It would be very good if women like us who have first hand experience of how destructive war is and its effect ton women and children. If we get involved we can help women. The problems women face during conflict can be better by fellow women because women are more open when talking to fellow women”, affirms Apophia .
A Rwandan proverb says: “Those who have nothing to share, call each other greedy”.
Such accusations often lead to discontentment and ultimately conflict. These women know all about that, because they were once soldiers. In the old days, like Ndabaga herself, they proved themselves as warriors.
Today, they are proving that women can also play a crucial part in grassroots economic development, which – they believe – leads to unity and reconciliation. The evidence suggests they are probably right.